Teen Sexting Really Does Mean Teen Sex

For all the parental and media hand-wringing, sexting remains a poorly studied phenomenon. But according to new peer-reviewed research, that concern might not be unfounded. Teen texts are indeed ablaze with sexual content - but how does technology-based sexual activity intersect with actual behavior?

Teens are sending more text messages than ever before. In July 2011, 63% of U.S. teens were texting on a daily basis, and almost one out of three teens between the ages of 12 and 17 were tapping out 60 texts per day. Beyond wreaking havoc on any parent’s family phone plan, the content of those texts is a reflection of teen habits - at least when it comes to sex.

Sexting, defined as "the practice of electronically sending sexually explicit images or messages from one person to another," is the back channel of choice for members of Generation Z expressing their sexuality. 

The phenomenon is much-reported but seldom examined from a scientifically sound perspective. In a new study, published this month in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers questioned a culturally diverse sample of 964 Houston-area students between the ages of 14 and 19 from seven public high schools. Below are some of the most notable findings:

      • 27.6% of teens reported having texted or emailed a naked picture of themselves
      • Male and female teens send sexts with about the same frequency. Female teens reported a higher rate of being asked to send a sext (68%) while male teens more frequently asked for someone to send a sext (46%).
      • White teens reported the highest sexting rates (35%), followed by black teens (27%) and Latino teens (22%).
      • Sexting was more common in older teens, who also reported being less bothered by requests from peers to send a sext.
      • Of girls who had sexted before, 77% also reported having had sex compared to 42% of non-sexters.
      • Beyond being more sexually active, girls who had sexted were significantly more likely to have also engaged in “risky” sexual behaviors, such as using alcohol and drugs before sex and having had more than one sexual partner in the last year.
      • Among boys who had sent a sext, 82% were sexually active, compared to 45% of boys who had never sexted. Among male respondents, sexting was not associated with risky sexual behavior.

Bear in mind that correlation is not causation. If you’re a concerned parent, cutting off a texting plan isn’t likely to rein in your teen’s sexual habits - those sexts are just a reflection of their less plugged-in habits at large. But in a paradoxical culture in which most parents still dread "the talk" while kids soak up (often questionable) ideas about sex from every other angle, sexting might prove to be a good conversation starter.